Verse 1 – Line 4 – HOME OF HUNTSMEN
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"Huntsmen are a strange breed. They live, work, and die to protect us from the blood-curse, yet they rarely loiter in the city to enjoy the fruits of their labour. So extreme is their aversion to city life, each one gives up comfort and security to live outside the city’s wall, technically making them deadlanders.

"It makes one wonder why. Does isolation make their job easier? Does the huntsman profession only attract those who enjoy it? Or have they stumbled upon a more satisfying way of life; one of a small tribe united by purpose; one that is now impossible for us Gardaran’s, given how the deadlands consume anything not surrounded by a wall?"

Excerpt from ‘Deadlander’s Dilemma: A Collection of Essays.’

-

Esther waited half an hour for Esvian to catch up. She couldn’t follow the woman because leaving the felklein’s corpse created a biohazard risk. It was her duty to stay, and unlike the duty of a conservator, it was not one she resented.

Even so, Esther waited in a state of agitation. “How dare she, that… that sirrah!” she muttered, pacing back and forth in front of the felklein’s prone body. First, she’d stolen Esther’s kill when Esther clearly had it handled. Then she’d insulted her skill, and then her reputation.

Blinded by her anger, Esther stumbled over a loose cobble. She looked down at the jagged piece of rock in contempt. Out in the deadlands, Esther never made mistakes. She was always prepared. She never missed a kill, and she never lost her footing.

Esther growled and kicked the cobble with so much force her toes flared with pain. The projectile flew into the darkened alley, carried by the strength of her rage and shame. Let it break apart, she thought. Let it learn to never mess with me!

Esther heard a muffled thud from the shadows, followed by a masculine curse.

“You kicked a fucking rock at me,” Esvian growled as he emerged, rubbing his head.

“Sorry,” Esther said sheepishly. “Some upstart harvel standing on that wall stole my kill and insulted me. It upset me somewhat.”

Esvian, smelling strongly of oil and smoke, crouched down to examine the corpse and the well-fletched bolt protruding from the side of its chest. “Missed the heart,” he mumbled. “Shoddy work from fifteen feet away.”

“On that, we’re in agreement.”

Esther aside as Esvian covered his hands with waxed paper and gently coaxed the felklein’s body into a waxed bag, followed by the hand coverings. Setting it aside, he poured brown, viscous oil over the blood, followed by generous handfuls of crushed matari leaves and rurik powder. Finally, he set the mixture aflame. The two huntsmen relaxed a fraction as the sweet and sour scent of the protective herbs infused through the air, chasing away the stench of the blood-curse.

Esther checked the waterproof seal of the sack, then threw it over her shoulder. “Ready to go?”

“Always. I hate this thrice-cursed city.”

Once the flames burned down to nothing, they headed off towards the guildhall. They headed towards their home.

-

The city was full of cats. Big and little, friendly and spiteful, bright and dull; Koryn City, like every other Gardaran city and town, had them all.

Most were ‘communal’ cats, which was just a pleasant way of saying ‘feral.’ Domestic cats were the only species known to be immune to the blood-curse, Dealth knows why, and they were driven to kill blood-cursed hosts without prejudice. The cats were a nuisance; they often got underfoot and stole any food not stored in a locked cupboard. But they were essential for keeping the rodent and bird populations down, which were the few species capable of carrying the blood-curse into the city. Everyone kept the communal cats fed and hale. It was a civic duty no one could afford to ignore, regardless of their wealth or status.

Two dozen cats followed Esther and Esvian through the city, glaring at Esther’s sack with feline scorn. A tailless stray with mangey ears kept weaving in front of her legs, but she refrained from kicking it no matter how much it annoyed her. If a bailiff saw her do it, she’d be fined.

Like all huntsman’s guildhalls since the dawn of the guild’s creation, theirs sat outside the city wall. The guild said the remote location improved their ability to protect the citizens from the blood-curse and the encroaching deadlands, whose gnarled mass of trees, stained and mutated by primal magics, rose high above the outer wall. But Esther suspected the truth lay elsewhere. Maybe it had something to do with keeping clueless city dwellers and meddling lords out of their way? Maybe it was because the location made them look fearless? Regardless, she couldn’t imagine living in the cramped city after spending five years living outside it.

The gate guards at the southern gates saw and immediately opened the gates. While the apprentices attempted to round up their army of cats, the officers congratulated them on a successful kill. The irony pained Esther. When she carried a highly infectious biological weapon, they crowded around her and shook her hand. But when she walked past them dressed in red and trying to save a cynosure, they didn’t dare to look at her, let alone touch her.

None too soon, the gates opened and they emerged into a new world. Gone was the repetitive wall of half-broken shanties backed by luxurious townhouses. In their place was a three-hundred-foot strip of land kept clear of all trees and shrubbery with controlled burns.

A hundred feet into the strip of land lay their guildhall, standing alone and free; a wild sight untainted by Koryn’s famous vista of scarcity and greed. It was a collection of buildings surrounded by a twenty-foot crenellated stone wall. Over the years it had become a micro-society, complete with its own tavern, infirmary, market, farms, and two crematoriums; one for the huntsmen and one for their prey. As the guildhall grew over the years, each new addition was constructed from different building materials and architectural styles, giving the entire compound a rather ramshackle aesthetic. Somewhere along the line, it was dubbed ‘the Shack’ and the name had stuck.

Behind it, the deadlands waited. Its sentinel trees dwarfed the city’s wall, their fingers yearning to spill onto the cleared land the city claimed as its own. Even from so far away, Esther felt the deadlands taint sinking into her bones. It was terrifyingly irresistible and its advance was inevitable, but in the meantime, the Shack held it back like a tiny shield attempting to block a tsunami.

Esther and Esvian relaxed as they slipped through the northern gate and joined a trail of tired and grubby hunters trudging towards the Main Hall, the largest of all the Shack’s buildings. It had once been a grand country estate until the Tears of Dealth flattened it. The huntsman’s guild claimed it following the Blood Queen’s fall, and even after a few hundred years of abuse, it still retained an air of grandeur. It was nothing like the Varson Estate, but the whispered touch of nobility was recognisable all the same.

Esther sighed as the warmth from the original fireplaces soaked into her tired muscles. The bottom floor was open plan and had eight fireplaces that burned day and night, emitting the potent scent of rurik and matari. Everything within the guildhall stank of those two herbs, and visitors often complained that an hour’s visit had branded them with the huntsman’s stench for a week, no matter how many times they washed.

“I hope Yarvier pays better than last time,” Esvian grumbled. “And if he doesn’t give us hazard pay for jumping into the line of duty unprepared, I swear I’ll-”

Someone clamped a heavy hand on Esvian’s Kyverian leather pauldron. The sound echoed throughout the room and exploded in Esther’s ears. Their reflexes were too well-honed to squeak or startle, so they both jumped apart and reached for their weapons. However, their fight evaporated when they realised who their assailant was.

“Finish that sentence lad,” the newcomer said in a strikingly accurate impression of Yarvier, “and I’ll give yer something ter moan about!”

Esther smiled at once. “Reeve, good man! Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

Esvian’s shoulders sagged, but his mouth curved into a slight smile. “It’s too early for this.”

Tall, bronzed, and muscular, Reeve had a face any artist would die to immortalise, but that was his least notable characteristic. That prize went to his legendary reputation as a huntsman, closely followed by his cocksure attitude. When they’d met, Esther both hated and feared him, especially since he was ten years her senior. But Reeve and Esvian were close for years before she’d entered the picture, so she learned to tolerate him. Over the years, tolerance turned to acceptance, acceptance to respect, and respect to friendship. The three had formed an unlikely trio, and none could imagine a force capable of tearing them apart.

The past week, they’d been missing their third member. Reeve was scouting in the Dark Woods, a badly distorted strip of forest to the south stretching between Koryn City and the tip of the Kasook Peninsular. Esther concluded he’d returned mere minutes ago, judging by his tousled hair and dirt-smeared face. She had no doubt that before their arrival, he had been pondering the philosophical debate all huntsmen faced regularly: what did he want more, food and drink, or a hot bath?

“Nice to know I was missed,” Reeve said with a chuckle. With a flourish, he draped both arms around Esther and Esvian’s shoulders. “Did I miss anything scandalous when I was gone?”

“I’m about to cause a scandal if you don’t leave off,” Esther said with light-hearted hostility. When she was free, she hoisted the sack containing the felklein in the air. “You better scram, woodlands man, because we have a dead creature to deal with.”

While Esvian filled him in on their latest kill, Esther scanned the hand-in stations along the western wall. There were seven of them, each with a six-foot-wide wooden table and a bookshelf filled with books, boxes of herbs, and cleaning supplies. A large locked metal gate loomed between stations three and four, blocking off access to a darkened corridor. It led to an isolated room where the Senior huntsmen, the thirteen men and women who ran the guildhall, kept all blood-cursed prey until nightfall so they could safely transport them to the crematorium.

Six of the seven stations were occupied, and each one had a queue three to four teams deep. Esther sighed as weariness caught up with her. She desperately wanted a drink, but it would have to wait; the process of confirming kills and handing out payment was a long one.

“Worry not,” Reeve said, his baritone voice rising a few octaves in excitement. “Come with me and you can jump the queue.” He beckoned them over to Yarvier’s personal station with a smirk.

Automatically, Esther grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “We’re here to get paid, not get in trouble!”

Reeve spun around, skilfully twisting out of her grasp. “And here I was, thinking you two couldn’t wait to spend time with me.” He pretended to pout in disappointment, and it might have fooled them had he not sounded so snarky.

Esvian pinched his lips in amusement. “You’re not worth the risk.”

“He told a joke!” Reeve’s eyebrows shot towards his hairline. “Esther, surely you heard it too? I don’t blame you if you didn’t since it was so awful it probably offended the gods, but it was a joke nonetheless! Mayhap we’re rubbing off on him?”

Esther shook her head wryly. “Just let us queue, Reeve. This little fox interrupted my afternoon drinking, so now I wish to get drunk on its bounty as quickly as possible.”

Reeve crossed his arms in the same way Yarvier did. Esther wondered if Reeve realised he was picking up on the old man’s habits. “What if you wouldn’t get in trouble? What if I told you Yarvier has given me the authority to sign off on hunts?”

“Then I’d call you a liar,” Esvian said flatly. “But then I’d tell you to do it anyway because I need a drink too.”

Reeve grinned, and without waiting for Esther’s response, they both strode over to Yarvier’s personal table. She considered resisting, but she really did need a drink. In the end, her cravings won out.

As guildmaster, Yarvier had the largest workspace and as one of the longest-serving senior huntsmen, he’d accumulated the most books and equipment. As Esther worked the sack open, Reeve struggled to locate the two boxes he needed. Nothing was labelled and twice he opened a one whose contents almost made him gag.

“He keeps a half-rotten eyeball in this one. What does he need a half-rotten eyeball for?”

“Knowing Yarvier, it’s probably better we don’t know,” Esther said.

Reeve eventually found what he was looking for as Esther finished tipping the dead felklein onto the table. Once it was free, a handful of cats appeared out of nowhere and gathered around the table legs. Reeve ignored them, and as he put his boxes down next to the felklein, he paused.

“Why’s there a bolt in it?” he asked slowly, as if speaking to children. It was standard procedure to burn any projectile that made contact with infected flesh. Once the fire worked its course, huntsmen collected the sanitised metal bolt heads and kept them separate for re-fletching. The Shack’s staff were busy enough dealing with infected corpses to worry about contaminated crossbow bolts or heads getting lost.

“Because it’s not ours,” Esther explained. “Some woman stole the kill and nearly shot me in the head. I figured one of the seniors might know someone who can help identify her.”

“Whoever she is, she missed the heart,” he said as he put on a pair of crudely shaped waxed gloves and eased the bolt out of the felklein’s side. “And it’s lodged deep, so she was close. Who misses the heart at close range?”

“You’re not the only one asking that question,” Esther muttered.

Reeve examined the fletching and the bolt head carefully. His eyes widened in recognition. “No need to investigate. I know exactly who this belongs to.” He snapped it in half, wrapped it tightly in the waxed paper, and set it aside.

“Who is it?” Esvian asked.

Reeve lifted the corner of his mouth in a soft smirk. “I’m sure you’ll both find out later.”

He prised open the two boxes, one containing vials of rurik powder and the other dried sprigs of matari leaves. They were silent as Reeve sprinkled the powder and wiped the leaves onto the felklein’s body to confirm infection. As the leaves withered and the powders smoked upon contact with the felklein’s infected flesh, Esther reflected on the strangeness of seeing him perform the ritual usually reserved for a senior member of staff. They would get in a lot of trouble if he’d lied about his clearance.

When he was finished, he removed the loves and wrote a few words on two pieces of parchment in his neat script. Usually, they would read ‘Blood Scourge Confirmed - Guildmaster Yarvier’ because Yarvier was old-fashioned and refused to use the blood-curses modern name. Reeve’s ‘Blood-Curse Confirmed — On behalf of Guildmaster Yarvier’ looked unnatural.

Beneath he wrote their payment: fifty cereks each.

Esther’s eyes widened at the amount. “That’s generous,” she said. “Especially since I wasn’t assigned on the hunt.”

Reeve shrugged one shoulder as he put his ink and quill away. “I saw Yarvier when I returned a few minutes ago. The forecasters said we’re in for a tough winter, so the Kareshian Plateau will close early this year. This,” he said, pointing at the two slips, “is compensation.” As an afterthought, he tipped his head in Esvian’s direction. “And hazard pay, of course.”

Esther’s stomach flared in annoyance. She’d been promoted from journeyman to junior huntsmen two years prior. Her promotion came with the Kareshian Plateau, a three-hundred-foot high plateau a few hours east of the Shack. Only hunting parties led by her could hunt there, making it the biggest responsibility she’d ever held.

She loved it, but it was an odd territory to control. It had no deadlander settlements due to inaccessibility, so on paper, it didn’t seem worth protecting. However, blood-cursed creatures loved to hide up there by day and climb down at night into the territories held by the green huntsmen. Esther and Esvian were paid exceptionally well to keep the new huntsmen safe, except through the winter. Unnatural snowfall in the colder months made it impossible to access, hence the seasonal closure. The pair would still have work, but it would be less frequent and with a lower rate of pay.

Reeve rubbed his hands with a cloth then scrubbed them with a handful of herb-infused sand. Then he said: “Your turn.”

Esvian stepped back as Reeve wiped his hands on his shirt. “Not you, this is too weird,” he protested immediately. “We’re clean-”

“Esvian, you don't know what ‘clean’ is,” Reeve drawled, giving Esvian a jocular wink. Esther laughed, earning her a lopsided scowl from Esvian.

“Alright Reeve,” she said. “If he’s going to be difficult, you may as well do me first.” Checking for signs of infection was a mandatory and routine procedure, but that didn’t make Esvian hate it any less. For reasons that were a mystery to Esther, he was extremely head shy. While he tolerated Yarvier’s examinations because they were related, Esvian flinched and resisted whenever someone else had to do the job.

“Well, at least someone is well behaved,” Reeve said. Esther stood still as he grasped her face and looked deep into her eyes, searching for any unnatural rupturing of the blood vessels. Next, he pulled down her eyelids to assess the colour of the skin, and she fought back the urge to blink. Finally, she opened her mouth so Reeve could take a look at her gums and tongue. He finished the examination by pressing a gritty thumb firmly on her gums, then releasing to test how quickly the colour returned.

“Pink and clean,” he rattled, turning to Esvian, who narrowed his eyes.

“Come on, Esvian,” Esther moaned. “I have to get back into the city later, but I want lunch first. If the Drunken Huntsman runs out of tables because of this holdup, I’ll throw you down the well.”

Esther’s threat of bodily harm did the trick. Esvian relented and allowed Reeve to look him over. The three of them dutifully pretended to ignore how tense he was. When Reeve finished, Esvian spat the grit onto the floor and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Was that so bad?” Reeve asked.

Esvian looked ready to say something ungrateful but swallowed it at the last minute. “Thank you. At least you’re a lot gentler than Yarvier.”

“That’s certainly true,” Reeve muttered. “You know, he once poked me in the eye so damn hard I couldn’t see for a week. To this day, it don’t see too clearly until an hour after I wake up. I told him I’d carve out his other eye if he did it again because I won’t suit an eye patch.”

He packed the felklein away in a wooden box and took it through the metal gate. When he emerged, his stomach rumbled with the might of a lion. “That decides it, food before bathing. I’ve eaten nothing but dried meat and nuts for a week. By Dealth’s middle testicle, I’ll kill for some of Jorin’s stew.”

They arranged to meet at the Drunken Huntsman after Esther and Esvian got paid. Reeve disappeared while they took their payment slips to the payment desk. The clerk didn’t bat an eye when he saw Reeve’s name on the slip, which meant the wily bastard told the truth for once.

As soon as the bag of coins fell into Esvian’s hands, he sighed in relief. “Time to settle my tab then drink to forget spending so much money.”

Esther gently hit him with her coin purse. “You’ve got yourself a drinking problem.”

He shrugged noncommittally. “Show me a huntsman who doesn’t and I’ll give you half my wages.”

Esther couldn’t deny that he had a point.

“Out of curiosity, just how big is your tab?”

Esvian scowled, his amiable mood turning south. “A hundred cereks.”

“One hundred! How?” She punched him on the arm with the side of her fist. “You said you weren’t going to drink as much anymore.”

Esvian grimaced in a failed attempt to keep his face neutral. “It’s only so high because I broke those three chairs last week.”

“That’s not any better,” Esther said with a frown. “You also said you’d stop fighting.”

“They deserved it,” he growled, slamming the Main Hall’s doors open. “They called me a primitive radge.”

Esvian and Yarvier weren’t just deadlanders, people born and raised outside the city walls. They were wildings, people born in the matriarchal tribes beyond the Paravian Wall, an expanse of uninterrupted deadland on the south-western corner of Gardara. The Paravian wilderness was nigh-on impassable, and even the Blood Queen couldn’t conquer them during her reign. It’s said she built the Paravian Wall so their savage ideals of freedom and independence couldn’t infect the rest of her domain.

Few people left the Paravian wilds, and Yarvier and Esvian were the only natives Esther knew. Despite Yarvier’s position as Guildmaster and Esvian’s skill as a huntsman, some still regarded them as savages not to be trusted. Radge, meaning a wild and crazy person, was often a derogatory term used to belittle the wilding men and women.

Esther patted Esvian’s arm where she’d punched him.

Come on. There’s drinking to be done.” Neither were any good at consoling each other. Luckily, they were both aware of the fact, so they’d come to find such changes in topic soothing in their own way.

-

Huntsmen had very specific priorities, and it was reflected in the organisation of the Shack’s main four buildings. The Main Hall sat in the middle, followed by the training quarters, then the Drunken Huntsman, which was crammed against the eastern wall. Directly north of the Huntsman’s beer garden was the lodge where most of the huntsmen slept. Huntsmen had a reputation for loving their cups, but work and training always came first, followed by a decent night’s sleep.

Reeve sat at his usual table in the corner and he waved them over. A large pot of stew sat in the middle, complete with a ladle and two empty bowls.

“Help yourself,” he said, gesturing to the empty bowls.

Esther peered into the pot. The stew looked hearty with lots of meat. Reeve hadn’t skimped on his order. “You didn’t need to,” she said.

Reeve shrugged and ate another mouthful. “I make more than the two of you combined. It’s only fair.”

They ate in silence, none daring to interrupt the sacredness of Jorin’s cooking. It was moments like that which Esther regarded as her private slices of heaven. Everyone was home safe after a hunt. They’d beaten back the deadlands and blood-curse for another day. They could eat and go to sleep happy.

As they were finishing, the tavern’s door flew open. A figure appeared in the doorway, casting a feminine-shaped shadow over their small group.

Esther didn’t recognise her immediately, which meant she was new. As the woman strolled her way deeper into the tavern, Esther noticed her pale skin almost seemed to gleam in the sunlight as her wavy red hair swung loosely around her waist. But while her delicate features and full lips made her appear harmless, there was a cold ambition in her eyes that set Esther on edge.

The other huntsman watched the woman in open admiration as she swayed across the tavern, heading directly towards Esther’s small group while deliberately swinging her hips. Esvian tensed in recognition when she came close enough for him to see her face. Upon closer inspection, Esther thought she recognised her as well, but she couldn’t pin down from where.

“I see this place hasn't changed a bit,” the woman drawled. She glanced around at the tavern, taking in its rustic appearance and the eclectic assortment of huntsmen sitting at the tables. She looked at each of them impassively, but none could hold her gaze for more than a second before looking away. “I still see the same old faces in the same old places.” She continued her surveillance until she saw Esther. Her eyes lit up, a sly grin spread across her face, and Esther realised where she’d seen her before.

“You,” she growled, standing up. It was the damn woman who stole her kill. “You nearly shot me!”

-

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Who is this mysterious stranger, and what does she want?

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